Clown Doctors Could Help Dementia Patients


A frown is just a smile turned upside down, as the saying goes, and few know that better than clown doctors. A new study has investigated whether clown doctors, who typically work with children, may also help improve the lives of dementia patients.

According to Dr. Peter Spitzer (aka Dr. Fruit-Loop), of The Humour Foundation, clowns have worked in hospitals since the age of Hippocrates. In more recent times, some people may be familiar with Dr. Patch Adams, the physician famous for wearing a red clown nose while he worked in hospitals approximately 40 years ago. Today Adams heads the Gesundheit! Institute, which promotes a positive global model of health care through volunteer programs, humanitarian clown trips, health justice gatherings, and educational lectures.

Professional clown doctors began to work in hospitals in 1986 as part of a program called the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, started by Michael Christensen in New York City. Today there are Clown Doctor programs throughout the world, from Australia to the United States, United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Czech Republic, Turkey, Israel, South Africa, and more.


Clown Doctors hand out doses of fun and laughter through magic tricks, storytelling, balloon sculpting, and other clowning skills. Their focus is on interaction with patients and their families rather than entertainment. Clown Doctors use laughter to combat stress, help reduce pain by releasing endorphins, promote a positive outlook, help patients and families cope with difficult situations, and strengthen the bonds between people.

All of these qualities of laughter would seem to be beneficial for people with dementia. In the new study, which Dr. Bernie Warren presented at the British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warren noted that “Previous research has found that clown-doctors can help children undergoing painful procedures, however in our latest study we investigated whether they can also benefit older patients.”

Warren and his colleagues found that when they included clown doctors as part of care teams for dementia patients, the patients experienced improved communication, better recognition of family members, and improved memory. He also noted that clown doctors can have a positive impact on patients’ mood, general outlook, and perceptions of pain and time, which can reduce or remove the stress and anxiety associated with hospitalization.

British Psychological Society
Gesundheit! Institute
The Humour Foundation


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